Sculpture: any art object in 3 dimensions. A painting is a sculpture. So is a flat image (the z-axis is microns thick). Good sculpture denotes form, by shadow and light, texture and action, and ultimately space vis-a-vis its placement, or editorial framing. It may have a function, in terms of toolmaking and architecture, or for cultural signifying and wayfaring, particularly with regard to power relationships.
Sculpture’s meaning has changed as society has changed. At once, it was bead collecting, bone collecting, pelt collecting, gourd collecting and the building of ephemera, or altars, usually to the animal that proffered its body for food. Jewelry with bone, shell, amber, grasses, sinew and stone was early sculpture, if not currency. Fertility goddesses in softstone were constructed as expressions of prayer and invocation.
As man moved from hunter to farmer, sculpture was co-opted by the first city elites, who in Mesopotamia were new bureaucrats who managed irrigation law. This control of resources brought about traditional religions, and the iconography of animals gave way to people (kings, queens, as avatars of gods). Sculpture thus was employed for propaganda heraldry, costume, weapons design, castles, temples, monoliths and megaliths of knowledge, and power. The clerisy was the magic center, and employed projects based on the sun, planets, and their relation to weather, seasons, and crop growth. Physical systems of control and punishment and sanctification were built into the city architecture.
With the rise of the Grecian city-states came the statuary of war, sports and political heroes, and were ubiquitous, much like our billboards today. A middle class of artisans were in the employ of royalty and the church, but also powerful guilds. Sculpture per usual were totems or advertisements of the ideal norms of the society, whether they be body fertility type, social function, social rank, king worship, god worship, and graphic representations of penalties for transgressors. The power of anthropomorphic messaging mixed with ubiquitous icon broadcast; marking the far-flung territory with symbolic representational kings in absentia.
The birth of the grand city, particularly Alexandria, then Rome, then Paris, gave rise to specialized architecture and temples to wealth. For the typical worker family, a constellation of gods and Janus protected the sanctity of home, hearth, food, sex and marriage. Artisans were employed to satisfy the home icon demand, and sculpture, ironically, became more abstract as mass production did not allow time for polish and customization. Time is money.
The Renaissance was the rebirth of classicism, naturalism, and a new individualism to art. A rebranding, if you will, from Middle Age population isolation. With trade, then war, symbols and commensurate art and religion were coopted by armies conquering alien territories. A world-image psychological amalgam, an ethnic, regional, national and language identity, gradually formed, in different (separated) ethnomythic spheres, or zones, around the world. The roles of priest, king, queen, shaman, general, worker, and slave developed simultaneously in separated human biomes, proofs that concurrent tool and art development are an human function vis genetic trait selection.
Sculpture then became the status display of the royal transtates of the world, the first global plutocratic class. Their commissions were large, and their case goods, tapestries, buildings and art objects became baroque, such was the time and money to create such polished details. Art academies were strict, as they were in the employ of the Medici-like king, or Pope-like priest. Myth and propaganda motifs were rebranded constantly, and never lost their base function, that of sociological, educational symbol transmission of power and control. Art has always been the image roadmap of the political and economic reality.
With industrialization came mass produced objects, and aesthetics. The animal and king fetishes now gave way to the elevation of the machine as god. Ideas of man became commensurate to man as a machine, a cog, for the more secularized business class of the royal transstate. The nobles and upper middle classes had real power, and their status wares multiplied, and design goals became stratified by economic class. Abuses to the burgeoning worker classes, with humanism and its increased expectations, gave way to societal restructuring and the great democratic revolutions. Statuary per usual codified patriotism, war heroism, and displays of national power and pride.
War was, and is, the inevitable result of human beings being both competitive and bored, and war became global cataclysms. Society could not abide by kings and zealots, with their decrepit alliance structures and lack of global visioning. The artist rebelled against the old art academies. Literature and painting, particularly with the power of the printing press medium, affected sculpture, as they always do. Dante gave way to Giotto which gave way to Bernini which gave way to Manet to Whitman to Appolinaire to Picasso to Rodin to Manship, Motherwell, Arp, Kerouac, Noguchi, Warhol, and Koons. Art in the 19th and 20th centuries were anti-establishment correctives, assisted greatly by photography and the popular press.
In a new sociological reckoning, the artist became famous as the trickster, the reborn troubadour, the shaman, the canary in the coal mine for the new global, unified psychology. Cinema and television centralized the messaging of new media elites, and their sponsors. Sculpture coopted plastic, video, television, computer, and biologics initiatives, as its perennial function. Thus the elevation of the Urinal, the Brillo Box, the Crushed Automobile into a Box, the Office Supply Implements, the Mylar balloons, and the infantile Disney regressions to global, megalithic expressions.
What will sculpture look like in the future? The future is here, and always was. Picasso stole from Iran as well as Africa from antiquity; Warhol stole from Picasso. Bowie stole from Lou Reed, who stole from Warhol, who stole from the Beats, who stole from Jazz, who stole African folk songs. The Beatles stole Jazz. The skyscraper replaced the pyramids. The computer replaced the codex. Television stole the playhouses. Hollywood stole the classical myths. Governments troll their propaganda.
Some things never change. Materials, platforms, biases: they change.
The new fetish? Computers; The Unified Mind. But also, too, the Blue Earth, as an organism, floating in space. Can these two gods co-exist?
Copyright © Michael James Hawk, all rights reserved.